A vision in the mirror of sex: Prostitution

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Madonna may choose to play at being a whore, but in the real world it still takes two women to act out the traditional roles. And while the occasional male celebrity might get caught kerb-crawling or brothel-creeping, the true victims remain the working girls, few of whom enjoy lives much resembling the Catherine Deneuve of Belle de Jour. At the mercy of pimps, clients and the law, they could do with some civilised reforms

In the austere surroundings of Marylebone magistrates' court, Joanne Shepherd and Samantha Wilson, arrested the previous evening, fidget on the hard public benches, waiting for their cases to be called. The court plods through the list of petty crimes, mostly theft in various guises, before the presiding magistrate, Sir Bryan Roberts.

The two young women clatter out of the courtroom on their black stiletto heels and reappear, 10 minutes later, reeking of cigarettes. They return to their fidgeting, picking at their hands, inspecting the scuffed heels of their shoes, sighing occasionally and theatrically as the morning drags on.

Then it is their turn. The clerk calls case No 20 and Joanne Shepherd climbs nervously to the dock where, flanked by two police officers, she fixes her gaze on the floor somewhere between the dock and the magistrate's bench. The charge sheet is read: she was arrested in Porchester Terrace, Bayswater, and charged with loitering in a public place for the purpose of prostitution. She pleads guilty. Sir Bryan considers her record: cautioned on 4 July and 11 July for loitering in Cleveland Square; charged on 13 July and conditionally discharged for 12 months. She was, he observes, in breach of her conditional discharge. She nods, silently. She offers no explanation, attempts no defence. ' pounds 10 for loitering and pounds 10 for the breach, 28 days to pay,' Sir Bryan orders. She climbs down the steps and returns to the public benches to wait for her friend.

The scene is repeated with Samantha Wilson: the same charge, the same record, the same fines. As they leave the court their voices drift back: 'I told you,' Joanne says to Samantha. 'I told you it wouldn't be anything.'

Joanne and Samantha are lucky in one respect at least. Other magistrates take a different view, but Sir Bryan Roberts has little patience with magistrates who, as he sees it, try to defy the will of Parliament by devising ways of putting prostitutes behind bars. It is not difficult to do: order a heavy fine and a short time to pay and, eventually, an accumulation of unpaid fines can lead to a prison sentence. That, Sir Bryan insists, is not the spirit of the law.

Inspector Dick Powell, whose 'street offences squad' had arrested Joanne and Samantha the night before, would not have been surprised at Sir Bryan's approach. He knows that roughly half an hour elapses between the arrest of a prostitute and her return to the street. He also knows that she is likely to be fined an insignificant sum which she will earn by repeating the offence. Measured by results, it is an exercise in futility.

And yet, on the previous evening, there they all were, the participants in this theatre. There was Inspector Powell, in the policeman's plain- clothes uniform of jeans and bomber jacket, cruising in an unmarked car, checking out the well-established whoring grounds of Paddington, Mayfair and Soho. It falls to him to keep them tidy. There was his team of 10 plain- clothes police cruising in an unmarked van, one team of a pair that attempt to cover as much of the 24 hours as they can. There were the women and, fleetingly, the punters.

There are others who have walk-on parts in the show: the residents of Cleveland Square or Bayswater Road, nice areas with nice families and nice feelings about the parade outside their front doors. Nice feelings, too, about basements that fill with used condoms or abandoned syringes or even the occasional encounter of a direct kind with prostitute and punter engaged in their transaction.

Nice feelings translate into angry residents' associations. Inspector Powell sympathises with them. He has been around prostitution, as he puts it, for about 17 years, and he doesn't like it much. Even if the whole thing were decriminalised and he no longer had to spend his time devising new ways of chasing women and their clients round the streets of London, he would still think it was morally wrong. 'I just don't think it's right for women to sell their bodies,' he says. 'And unless you live in an area where it happens, you don't appreciate how bad it can be.'

So he spends a lot of time meeting the distressed gentlefolk of Paddington, inventing new traffic schemes that turn kerb-crawlers' circuits into dead-ends, erecting road barriers, creating no-entry streets. His team pursues kerb-crawlers, too, but with less success. Last year they brought 162 kerb-crawling prosecutions, compared to 4,000 prosecutions of prostitutes. That is partly a reflection of the difficulty of bringing a kerb-crawling case, but also, he points out, the fact that most of the Soho punters are on foot and, in Mayfair, around the Hilton Hotel, there is a continuous stream of traffic anyway.

At Vine Street police station, two young women, picked up in Soho, had just been charged. 'She's a lesbian,' remarked Inspector Powell, looking at the sullen arrestee. He went to a filing cabinet and pulled out a list of convictions that went on for several pages. 'Some of them have 200 convictions. Some of them don't even do prostitution. They make their living by 'clipping': they get these idiots to hand over pounds 100 and then they tell them to wait there while they get a hotel room. Just leave them standing there.'

Back in his car, Inspector Powell continued his patrol, down Park Street, along Bishop's Bridge Road, into Cleveland Square with its tall stucco houses, into Craven Street, past a bed-and-breakfast hotel used by some of the prostitutes. A brown Bedford van containing his team crossed in the other direction. Round the corner, he spotted a woman in a short black skirt walking briskly down the street. On the other corner, one of his men was casually unwrapping a stick of chewing gum.

In the next street, he pulled over to talk to Teresa, a young woman in a black leather jacket. 'Not you,' she said, cheerfully. 'I've just been nicked by your lads. I hadn't been out five minutes before they got me. I went up to one of them, didn't I? Jesus. After all these years and I go up to a bloody policeman.'

Teresa seemed in good spirits, though her mood, according to Dick Powell, varies wildly, depending on how recently she has had her last dose of crack.

'I know it's their job,' she said of the police, 'and I try not to be rude to them. But I've been arrested five nights in the last seven.'

How much did she reckon to make? 'You mean straight business or robbing?' she asked. 'Just straight business it's pounds 35 a job, just enough to live on and pay the fines. But I've got to pay for the crack and that's pounds 20 a hit and it only lasts five or 10 minutes. So I do robbing. I got pounds 270 out of a wallet yesterday.' Wasn't that dangerous? She laughed. 'You get the wallet when they're busy with the sex and they don't notice. Then you say you want to go to the toilet and you get out of the car, quick.'

Teresa has given up paying fines, she said. 'I just go to jail two or three times a year. I rest up and eat and use the gym. It's like a health cure. Holloway's my second home.' Would she do it if it were not for the crack? 'I'd still do it, but I wouldn't do it as much. I come out here for 24 hours at a time, then I'll sleep for a day, then back out here. Gotta go,' she said suddenly, and opened the car door. 'Money to be made.'

'She's forever rolling clients,' said Inspector Powell. 'When we arrest these girls, we find all sorts of things on them. Cheque books, credit cards. We ring up the owners and they say, 'Me? Oh no, I haven't lost anything.'

Women like Teresa are the bane of Ros Breckell's life. As a resident of Westbourne Grove, she has worked out her own modus vivendi: 'There are streets I just don't walk down, day or night, and if I go out at night I call a cab to come to my door. If you stand on a corner looking for a cab, you just get harassed by kerb-crawlers. And if you try to ask a prostitute to move on, you have to be very careful. They can be very abusive and they have minders. The police are very good, in that they do respond and they do their best. But you'll never get rid of it, and the best they can do is move it on for a while. It always comes back, though.'

Maggie Gordon, who lives in a residential area of north London favoured by the trade, agrees. 'We have five schools in the area and the playgrounds get littered with condoms and syringes. Mothers picking up their children have been accosted. Children have to witness violent encounters betwen pimps and prostitutes. It's ruining our quality of life.' The residents have formed a group that hopes to put pressure on Parliament to change the law. 'We don't think street prostitution is compatible with a residential area,' Maggie Gordon said. 'We don't think it's fair just to move it on, but we feel like the forgotten victims of this.'

STREET prostitution is the visible part of a sex trade that employs thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of people, a trade that is tolerated, just, unless it spills over into violence or nuisance. But the status of the trade is fraught with moral ambivalence and hypocrisy. And, the feelings of the residents of Paddington notwithstanding, the principal victims of the trade's uncertain status are the sex workers themselves: the thousands of women who trade a commodity that brings them a financial return far higher than any other at their disposal. In entering that trade, they strike a bargain of an entirely different nature from the bargain made by those who buy what they sell.

Prostitution lays bare our society's unresolved attitudes towards two of its most powerful forces: sex and money. By taking money for sex, the prostitute is deemed to have betrayed the virtues of womanhood. By paying money for sex, on the other hand, her client is deemed only to be expressing an accepted aspect of manhood. Many prostitutes argue that the relationship between client and whore is the most honest expression of a bargain that is struck everywhere, in different guises. 'Is there really that much difference,' a London magistrate observed, 'between the woman who marries a wealthy man she might not love, thus securing for herself freehold possession of financial security, and the woman on the streets who enters into a series of short-term rentals?' 'The relationship between money and sex,' a sociologist remarked, 'is entrenched in our laws: it is in the social security regulations, for instance, that if a man has a sexual relationship with a woman there is deemed to be a financial arrangement between them.'

Why, then, the prostitute asks, the stigma that attaches to what she sees as the honest bargain? And why the laws that allow her to ply her trade after a fashion, but do not allow her to practise it in safety or in the manner that she might choose?

'This cannot be regarded as a moral question,' the magistrate concluded. 'It is mainly a health issue and the question becomes how to try to provide a framework within which prostitution can exist in its least mischievous form.'

But the law treats it neither as a moral or a health matter: prostitution itself is not illegal. What the law does address is the manner in which it is practised. Thus, soliciting on the street is an offence, but whoring in the Hilton is not. Operating from a private flat is legal, if a prostitute operates alone, but not if two prostitutes set up business together. 'Thus,' as Sir Bryan Roberts explained, 'in an apartment building of 50 flats, each containing a single working prostitute, nobody is committing an offence. But if, in the same apartment building, 25 flats are each occupied by two prostitutes, all of them are breaking the law.'

Equally, though prostitution is not illegal, it is an offence to pimp - to live off immoral earnings, a law that prostitutes complain discriminates against their right to enjoy a stable relationship with a male partner. But at the same time, Her Majesty's tax inspectors have no qualms about serving substantial income tax demands on Lindi St Clair, a woman who openly lives on the proceeds of her prostitution. If an individual man may not partake of a prostitute's earnings without breaking the law, why should the Government?

So the state seems to be saying that prostitution is inevitable, but that we do not want to see it. We will confine it to a half-light in which it will be tolerated, but should it stray in front of our wives or children, we will harass it. It is the visibility of the trade that is the offence, not the trade itself. On the evidence of its legal status, we have not quite managed to resolve what this business is for.

THERE IS no shortage of theory that explores the condition of women in patriarchal societies. Feminist writers in the Sixties and Seventies dissected the marriage contract as an instrument of patriarchal control of female sexuality: the division of women into the 'good' woman who was rewarded for her acceptance of monogamy, exchanging independence for a flawed assurance of security; and the 'bad' woman who determined for herself the disposition of her sexuality, or who broke the rules. Against the 'bad' woman, patriarchy deployed the familiar sanctions - economic, social, cultural and religious - as punishment. Neither woman was allowed to choose her fate, because an apparatus of discrimination held them at an economic disadvantage.

That much was expounded in the Sixties, when women were encouraged to participate in the sexual revolution as one aspect of liberation. It might have led to an acceptance of prostitution as an arrangement that sat at one end of a spectrum of male-female bargains with marriage at the other. But when, in the early Seventies, Helen Buckingham, then an outspoken prostitute lobbying for changes in the laws governing prostitution, tried to make common cause with the leading feminist magazine of the day, Spare Rib, she discovered that liberation - and liberalism - stopped well short of where she was standing.

'Spare Rib was the first thing I turned to because it supposedly gave women a voice,' she said. 'I asked them for a page so that we could put our case - because we considered ourselves women doing our own thing. Our bodies were our own and we were doing with them as we wanted. But they wouldn't have it. They said, 'We have analysed prostitution and we have decided' - not that any of them had been on the game - 'that prostitution is the epitome of women's slavery to men.' '

'We didn't see it like that. We saw ourselves in the forefront of the economic definition of the relationship between men and women. We were taking the bull by the horns and saying, this is how it is: I get married to him for the housekeeping money and he's a pain in the ass for the rest of my life, more than likely. I daren't divorce him because I might have nothing to live on. So why don't I have several pains in the ass a week and come home to my own life, watch the television programmes I want to watch? We were saying that men are a pain in the ass and this is the best relationship to have with them. They are good for money and sex. Put those two together and you get the best there is out of men.'

Helen Buckingham went on the game because she was, as she saw it, a victim of the sexual revolution of the Sixties, when men discovered sex without responsibility. 'They all wanted to go to go to bed with you, but none of them wanted to marry you.' So when she found herself with a child, unable to afford childcare, unable to work, ineligible for a council flat, the next step seemed to her logical.

'For me,' she said, 'the whole idea was to get a house. Most prostitutes are extremely pragmatic.' But, as she discovered, living in the black economy brings complications: 'I stayed on the game for years longer than someone of my education should have done, just because it takes longer than you realise to get the money together. I could never keep up with property prices: no matter how much prostitution I did, I could never save up enough to buy a house. There was always a property boom. It was always just beyond my means.

'You couldn't get a legal mortgage, but you could get an illegal mortgage if you went to bed with everyone. You had to go to bed with the bank managers, the mortgage broker, the surveyor - all the people involved. Lots of prostitutes did it. Then you had to pay around pounds 1,000 for false documentation regarding your employment and get someone to be guarantor and say that you were their private secretary. There were all those networks for the women in the know who had the middle-class clients.'

According to research conducted by the English Collective of Prostitutes in the early Eighties, more than 70 per cent of prostitutes are unsupported mothers who go on the game to keep their families. There are also, according to Helen Buckingham, hundreds of part- time prostitutes who use it for a time to help them towards a specific goal.

'You get students supplementing their grants, out-of-work actresses, people, like me, saving up for a house. Some people get worried when they feel they're getting too old to be whoring around and they open poodle clinics and things like that, things that don't take too much capital. But it's very rare that a prostitute makes good. People think they do, but they don't. They usually slide back into society in a fairly ignominious sort of way. And a lot of women end up in some sort of trouble with men. It's amazing how quickly some women will part with their money when there's a man around. Men are such pimps. All breeds of them. And women let them be.'

IF THE motives of the women are clear, the motives of their clients are less well-documented. Some have sexual tastes that they feel cannot be accomodated within their marriages. 'You get blokes here who want to be tied up and be spanked like naughty schoolkids,' said one London dominatrix. 'They can't ask their wives to do it because they'd feel idiots sitting down to breakfast the next day.' But the majority of prostitutes' clients are not after exotic services. 'A surprisingly large number of them,' said 'Jane', who worked for more than 10 years in a brothel in Belgium, 'are family men. They'd drop in on the way home from work on a Friday night. Some of them just wanted to talk. Others just want to be with a woman without any of the expectations that a relationship involved.'

'There's a personality problem with most men,' Helen Buckingham said. 'I wouldn't say the ones who use prostitutes are the ones with the biggest problem: they're the ones who balance it best, because they don't have any illusions. It's the men who think that women ought to love them for nothing that have the illusions. The punter is the honest man - and it's an honest relationship. It might be a superficial one and we might all wish that men and women got on better together - and they may yet. But until they do, and even if they do, there's still room for this relationship. I don't think it has to be considered criminal or damaging to women. What is damaging to women is having no choice in life.'

'The most important thing to say about the men who go to prostitutes,' said Hilary Kinnell, who has worked for six years in the Safe project, a community health HIV prevention programme in Birmingham, 'is that they far outnumber the women who work as prostitutes.' Her own estimate of the scale of the trade - with which the local police disagree - is that in Balsall Heath there are around 1,200 prostitutes who work an average of 50 weeks a year each and average 22 men a week, giving a total of 1,320,000 encounters a year. The male population of Birmingham is around 400,000, she points out, and, of the clients contacted by her project, about 60 per cent were local. 'The lowest estimate we could come up with of the percentage of Birmingham men who visited prostitutes was 30,000, or around 8 per cent. The upper estimate is 22 per cent.'

It is hard to judge the accuracy of her figures: the study of prostitution has not, to date, been an exact science. But before her figures are dismissed, it is worth pointing out that the Birmingham Safe project is one of the few organisations in Britain to have systematically collected data on street prostitution over an extended period - six years, in this case. If Hilary Kinnell is right, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, for the men of Birmingham, visiting prostitutes is a habit rivalling attendance at football matches.

'A minority,' she said, 'are violent men who pick on prostitutes as vulnerable women on whom they can work out their aggression. But when we interviewed the clients, what came across overwhelmingly was a a feeling of being at ease with prostitutes in a way they were not with their partners. I can see why women sell sex, but the question of why men buy it is a more interesting and difficult one. I think that men, too, seem to be taught that good women are not sexy, and it damages them as much as it damages women.'

When the Mother's Union, an organisation that upholds the values of Christian marriage, announced earlier this year that it was to reflect on the question of legalising brothels, there was a predictable flurry of media interest. At the core of that interest was the possibility that two extreme ideas of womanhood - Madonna and whore - could reach an understanding: that Madonna could acknowledge whore as a legitimate part of society's puzzle.

The Mother's Union, after due reflection, voted against the legalisation of brothels, an outcome that stereotype suggests was predictable. But the finer print of its report reveals an important shift in attitudes towards prostitution and a concern for the welfare of the prostitute that the middle-class Madonna is not supposed to feel. And even more surprising is the thinking behind the rejection of legalisation, according to the chairwoman of the MU's social concern department, Lynnette Paul. 'There was a very lively concern among the membership,' Mrs Paul said, 'for the prostitutes as people, as mothers and as members of a family. There was a shift towards legalisation of brothels, but the reason that it was not carried was the doubt that legalisation would do what it was hoped it might: give the prostitute safety and protection. The fact that prostitutes themselves argued against it weighed very heavily with us.'

It appears to be true that prostitutes, with some vocal exceptions, are suspicious of legalised brothels. The legalised brothel becomes the regulated brothel, a place in which women lose their right to determine how and when they work, in which they are exploited and controlled. What is required, argue the English Collective of Prostitutes and others, is simply decriminalisation, which would allow women to choose where, when and how to work, and remove the need for the 'protection' of the pimp, by allowing women to seek security in the arrangements they chose. As Helen Buckingham put it: 'If it were decriminalised, bank managers could provide loans for small brothels. Someone should be accountable, perhaps a madam to whom the police could issue a licence. The fire department should be able to check things, and perhaps hygiene officers from the local council should be able to inspect the lavatories. But I don't think the women who work there should be identified. It's a private thing, it's not the business of the state.'

Others agree. They quote the experience of Germany or the United States, where women, they say, become serfs in a state-controlled sex industry. Proponents of the idea of legal brothels argue that the advent of Aids has made it necessary to regulate the sex trade. The same argument was used in the 19th century when syphilis was perceived as the disease of sin and the prostitute as the source of infection. The result was the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 and 1866, which gave the police power to detain, register and 'treat' women they deemed to be prostitutes. There is an argument now, as there was then, about the facts of the disease, and who, precisely, is at greater risk - the prostitute from the client or the client from the prostitute.

At the headquarters of the English Collective in King's Cross, the idea that prostitutes are a source of Aids is dismissed. 'Statistically,' protests Nina Lopez-Jones, 'you have more chance of contracting Aids from a Catholic priest than from a prostitute.' The evidence of health projects that have targeted prostitutes in a number of UK cities suggests that HIV infection among them is relatively low, a fact that researchers explain by a high degree of awareness among prostitutes and long experience in practising safe sex.

'There is nothing infectious about taking money for sex,' Hilary Kinnell observed. 'The virus is not transmitted on a pounds 10 note.' Where HIV infection has been found, it can usually be linked to intravenous drug use by the prostitute or by her private partner. 'Prostitutes, in our experience,' said Hilary Kinnell, 'are very aware of safe sex and condom use when they are working, but, like most people, tend not to use condoms in their private relationships.'

The Birmingham findings are confirmed by another research project in Glasgow. There, Neil McKeganey, a research worker on the Glasgow project, said that their studies had revealed an HIV rate of under 5 per cent. 'The extraordinary thing is, though,' he said, 'that if you ask clients what they think the infection rate among prostitutes is, they tell you that they think it's 30, 40 or 50 per cent. Not only is it grossly exaggerated, but it doesn't seem to put them off using prostitutes, or trying to insist on unprotected sex. About 9 per cent of the clients we interviewed claimed to have had unprotected sex in their last encounter.'

The encounter between prostitute and client is a meeting fraught with ambiguity. Both sides characterise it as an honest transaction, but each insists it controls the encounter: men say that by paying for sex they buy exactly what they want, which may be unprotected sex. 'The idea of doing to a prostitute what other men are not allowed to do seems to be important for some men,' Neil McKeganey said.

But prostitutes, too, say that they are in charge, that they reject men they do not like and that they set the terms of the encounter. Both sides, McKeganey says, exaggerate their degree of control.

The ambiguity of the encounter itself is multiplied in the question of the role of prostitution, and of prostitutes, in our society. Even the English Collective is ambivalent: 'We are for prostitutes,' Nina Lopez-Jones says, 'but against prostitution.'

Is it still, as St Augustine defined it, a necessary evil that helps to maintain social order? Or is it the underside of the persistent division of women into 'good' and 'bad' that operates to the detriment of all women and their partners? The burden of the present ambiguity is carried by the prostitutes: it leaves them unprotected, vulnerable to violence and exploitation and burdened by the stigma of 'respectable' society's view of what they do. But they can find within it a certain freedom - to set their own terms of work and to gain the freedom of manoeuvre that their earning power brings.

In the 19th century, Victorian seamstresses turned to prostitution because they could not earn a living wage by the needle. Today, the ability to earn more money by prostitution than by any other work available to them is still quoted by many women as the reason they take to the trade. The paradox is inescapable: to earn the freedom that money brings, the prostitute must volunteer to submit to the crudest expression of the superior power of the male. As long as she is simply stigmatised for that choice, she will carry an unfair burden. If, instead of turning away, we were to peer into that social half-light in which the prostitute is confined, we might see that she is holding up a mirror to 'respectable' sexuality, that she deals with dimensions of sexuality that are not divorced from society but part of it. It is a mirror in which few choose to look.

Donna's story

I COME from a very large family, but I never knew my real father. I was brought up by my mother and stepfather. My mother couldn't cope, she had so many children. I was about five when my stepfather first interfered with me. He'd wait until my mother went out and tell me to go upstairs. He made me wear lipstick and high heels and penetrated me. I have flashbacks. I see a room, a bed, the curtains are drawn. I'm on the bed and he takes his trousers down. He told me that if I told anyone he'd kill me and my mother, so I kept quiet. We were terrified of him.

I was a drug addict by the time I was 10. I used to run away, I cried all the time. The way I look at it, I became a prostitute when I was five, because when he abused me my stepfather would give me money and tell me I was a whore and a slag. He'd give me sixpence or a shilling. Then he'd take it back, telling me I wasn't good enough, I hadn't earned it.

I remember a policeman chasing me across a field when I was running away. In the station he asked me if anyone was touching me and I remember saying, 'Fuck off, you dirty bastard, get away from me.' Any time a man spoke to me, I got into a corner and cried. I was in a succession of children's homes. I was advanced for my age, foul-mouthed, more like a 20-year-old woman. When I was 12, I was lured into a van with sweets and money by my stepfather. There were two other men. They were drinking sherry. My stepfather went first, then the other two.

I was in a youth treatment centre after that.

I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what. I was pregnant. I had the baby in a mother-and-baby unit. It was a terrible labour. I got no pain-killers. They put my legs in stirrups. I knew my baby was in my stomach, but I had no idea how it was going to come out. When I told my social worker that my stepfather could have got me pregnant, he told me never to repeat it, that it was best forgotten. It was the first time I'd told anybody.

I gave birth to a boy, Darren, my pride and joy. I'd always wanted to be loved - I wanted someone to love me so I could love them. They got me to sign some papers saying they were for the baby's injections. I signed them and then realised they were care and protection orders. He was taken from me and I was sent to a psychiatric unit. They tried to get me to talk about my problems, and I wouldn't. But when I finally opened up, I went berserk. They pinned me down and injected me. But it was time to talk about it, although every time I tried, they tranquillised me.

I came to London when I was 15, and I lived with a man who was fantastic to me for two weeks - then he beat me to a pulp and sent me out to work on the streets. He raped me.

I worked for him through fear for four months and then I tried to poison him with rat poison.

I ran away when he got cramps.

I've had two other children. They're adopted. It breaks my heart. I've had cancer of the ovary and womb - they've been removed. A doctor told me it was probably due to the abuse as a child. I had the operation when I was in jail for drug importation. Now I may have cancer of the bowel. I'm waiting to have an operation.

I've had one relationship with a man I loved and trusted. But he's in jail now. I didn't work for three years when I was with him. He didn't know I'd ever worked, but we got involved in drugs, unfortunately. When he found out I was a prostitute he was hurt and cried like a baby, because he did love me. But he gave me a good hiding. We split up but got back together and because of the drugs, he allowed me to work. I have no contact with him now, though

I care about him deeply.

I'm a prostitute because I don't know any other way of life. But I hate it. I've done the rounds - the saunas, the nightclubs, the street. I have regular check-ups and I always use a condom. I'm as careful as possible. I don't get into a car if I sense danger. The blokes vary - some are nice, some are weirdos. I've had punters beat me up. One took me to a lake and I had to pretend to float like I was dead. Twelve years ago I was knifed in the stomach in a man's car. His expression changed from Mr Nice Guy to Mr Psychopath. A taxi-driver found me bleeding in the gutter.

I suppose I look on men as animals. I just turn off when I have sex with them. Most want oral or penetration - French or sex. You get the odd one that wants to do disgusting things and I won't tolerate it. I'll only do oral or straight or hand. I'll whip them because I can take my aggression out on them, and there's more money in S & M. It's pounds 40 for straight sex and French, pounds 150 up for S &M, and pounds 30- pounds 40 for a hand job. You can get it over and done with in a few minutes. If they start taking their time, I say 'Your time's up whether you've come or not.' Some start telling you their problems and you say, 'Sorry, I'm not here

for that.'

Men have got nasty with me six or seven times, but it's getting more frequent. The world is changing. It's because of the stigma against us because of drugs and Aids. The majority of men I see are happily married, but they don't want lovers because it means wining and dining them. It's cheaper to come to me, and they can go away with a clear conscience - they don't think of it as betraying their wives.

I refer to myself as a working girl, not a prostitute. I think I'm doing a public service and it's a tiring, dangerous job. The vice squad are supposed to protect us, but when I've gone to them as a rape victim they say, 'You're a prostitute.' But times are getting harder and there are more and more housewives out working to pay the mortgage. It's the recession. I meet them all the time.

I'm a normal person, I've got feelings. But I feel like an outcast, which is a terrible way to feel. I'd love to get out, but it's hard when you're used to the money. I'd love to pay tax. I think most of the other girls have stories something like mine.

Helen's story

I'VE BEEN a prostitute since I was 26 - I'm 37 now. Before that I worked in offices and the rag trade. But I had this friend who always had money and jewellery, she was glamorous and I was jealous of her. She kept saying, 'Come and work with me, and you can have nice clothes.' It seemed like a fantasy come true - and for a while it was like that.

I started working as a waitress in a nightclub and then as a hostess and you know what that means: you leave with the client and have sex in his hotel. There was money to be made then - pounds 500 a night. The clients were tourists and businessmen. You'd already have made pounds 200 in the club hostessing - you got pounds 60 a client, that's just sitting with them and letting them touch your legs to keep them happy. I stopped that - security got tighter at the hotels, I got fed up with the hours, working all night until 4am. And besides, they want young girls.

I never have orgasms with my clients. I've never hated anything like I hate doing this, having big slobs on top of you, puffing and panting. I've never had a boyfriend. And I've never had a good sexual experience - the only orgasms I've ever had were in dreams.

I live at home and I was never brave towards my dad until I was 22. He used to beat me if I was 10 minutes late home from school. There's someone I really fancy - my heart misses a little beat when I think about him. It's being a prostitute that holds me back.

I have to drink before I go out - I need the Dutch courage. I'm an alcoholic now, and I've taken a lot of drugs in the past. Most of my clients are regulars. I meet some very nice men, but there have been a couple of dodgy ones. One hot night a client put his hand round my neck. That time I was brave enough to get out and report the number of his car.

I know a girl who went to a guy's flat. He was very respectable-looking - when a man goes out to do a woman in, he always wears a nice suit. This man hit her, stripped her and tied her up with a noose round her neck, which he pulled very tight. She lost consciousness, and when she came to he was in a drunken stupor. The police went round and found a body cut up in pieces in bin-liners. That would have stopped me - but she still works.

You get funny ones sometimes. A very rich gentleman took me to his house in Belgravia. He wanted to wear my silk skirt and a headscarf and lipstick. He asked me to put a 12-inch vibrator up his backside while he was pretending to be a dog and sniffing cocaine on his hands and knees going, 'Woof - more] Woof - more]' Every time I tried to leave, he offered me another pounds 50 for five minutes.

Ninety-five per cent of them are just ordinary men. Most of them tell you the same story - my wife doesn't understand me / won't give it to me / is on holiday. Some of them are really nice-looking young men. I suppose it's better than playing with themselves.

I think my family have guessed - where do they think the money for my nice clothes comes from? But I don't go out every night - the police seem to be arresting us more and more. I'm in bloody court all the time. I've got over 80 convictions for soliciting.

I get on OK with the police most of the time, but last week I shouted at them because they shone a torch on me when I was with a client. I take them to a place where I know the police will go by - for protection. I shouted, 'Leave me alone, I'm giving it away] I can give it away every half hour if I want]'

I'd need a lot of help to stop going out on the street. There's something that attracts me. It's the money, but it's also something else. If I'm home for a couple of days, I miss my little corner on Goodsway near King's Cross. I don't know whether it's excitement or whether I've got a death wish. I've tried suicide several times, first when I was 22 - I was depressed day-in, day-out, knowing what was going to happen. Last year I took 30 Seconal with vodka. When I woke up, I wanted to die. Perhaps I go out because I'm a Catholic . . . How can I talk about religion when I do what I do? But I believe in God, and that if I kill myself I'll go to

limbo, so perhaps I go out so someone will kill me and I hope it will be bloody quick.